Live-blogging the IRE 2013 Conference in San Antonio: Resources that will help you be a better journalist

IRE Conference 2013

Check out some of my favorite research tips, strategies and resources from this year’s Investigative Reporters and Editors conference, where about 1,100 incredibly talented journalists are meeting in San Antonio. These conferences are geared for journalists, but really anyone who’s interested in research tools will find many of these tips handy.

Jul 1, 2013: 8:32 am

Daniel Russell, research master at Google

Daniel Russell, research master at Google

More awesome search tips from Google expert Daniel Russell, with real-world examples.

Jun 24, 2013: 12:07 pm

Creative ways to find sources:

Jun 24, 2013: 10:27 am

How to find America’s worst charities: Excellent tips by Kendall Taggart at the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Jun 24, 2013: 7:40 am

Tips and tweets:

Jun 23, 2013: 1:22 pm

Investigative journalist Bill Dedman speaking at a panel about investigating the wealthy

Pulitzer-Prize winner Bill Dedman, speaking at a panel about investigating the wealthy

Investigating the wealthy sounds like a daunting task, but there’s actually a vast amount of historical resources available to the reporter who wants to try.

Investigative reporter Lise Olsen of the Houston Chronicle once visited a probate court clerk’s office to check out a tip that lawyers were making themselves rich at the expense of the estate of a wealthy but incapacited man. The clerk asked how many boxes she wanted to get in the case — there were 30.

In other words, probate courts are a gold mine. Olsen suggested looking at fee schedules and reports filed by court-appointed guardians.

It helps that wealthy Texans are chatty and often more approachable than their East and West-coast counterparts, said Mimi Swartz, an executive editor at Texas Monthly. In many cases, the only people who crave more attention than rich Texans are their lawyers. You can learn a lot about how the real world works by simply listening to their stories.

“One way to pay kickbacks to judges is to play poker and lose,” Swartz said. can help you find genealogical records. For a modest fee, you can find an actual picture of the ship that ferried specific European immigrants across the Atlantic.

A curious mind can always lead you to a good story. Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Bill Dedman stumbled across the unusual case of reclusive heiress Huguette Clark while he was house hunting and checked the most expensive mansions that were for sale. It launched him on a story that started out as a feature about Clark, whose father was a wealthy copper-mine baron and disgraced lawmaker. But the story morphed into an investigation of Clark’s current whereabouts — she hadn’t lived in any of her mansions for years, and Dedman’s reporting raised questions about the people overseeing her vast fortune.

The bizarre tale struck a chord with readers. It went viral and Dedman ended up writing a book about it called “Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune.”

Dedman relied on cemetery records, depositions in court cases and old newspaper clippings. He obtained pictures of Clark’s estates and the artwork she painted. He wanted to do a good job describing them, so he talked to experts.

Botanical consultants told him precisely what kind of unique plants were on the estate grounds.

A professor of fashion history described the kind of apparel Clark wore as a young woman.

An art expert told Dedman that in the old days, women usually painted with pastels. Oil painting was considered a manly art form. Yet Clark chose to be an oil painter. It showed an intriguing snippet of her character — which Dedman would not have discovered if he hadn’t gone to the trouble of talking to a knowledgeable expert.

Jun 22, 2013: 7:57 pm

Tips on Twitter:

Jun 21, 2013: 4:35 pm

Tips on Twitter:

Jun 21, 2013: 4:11 pm

Check out interesting panels you missed at the IRE conference by reading the IRE Conference blog and Gannett’s IRE 2013 tumblr. Armies of reporters and journalism students are posting good stuff, including:

  • Delving into crime data and finding flaws
  • Transparency: Getting past “No”
  • Tips for environmental investigations
  • Jun 21, 2013: 11:40 am

    Tips on Twitter about investigating charities:

    Jun 21, 2013: 11:23 am

    Wall Street Journal Reporter Rob Barry, speaking at the 2013 IRE conference

    Wall Street Journal Reporter Rob Barry, speaking at the 2013 IRE conference

    So much information at IRE conferences is about how and where to find documents and information. It’s always interesting to hear what you should do after you amass that giant mountain of data and documents.

    During yesterday’s Business Investigations panel, Reporter David Heath of the Center for Public Integrity talked about “the magic of simply sorting by date” when you take all your documents from a variety of sources and plug the information into a spreadsheet to make a timeline.

    “It’s a very simple process,” Heath said. “It sounds too basic to talk about.” Heath includes everything he finds in the timeline early on in the reporting process because at first you don’t know what’s important. As the chronology grows, patterns, connections and narratives begin to emerge.

    While investigating a shady company, Heath found a corporate filing signed by a man who claimed to lead the firm. But during that same time period, the same person also signed a different document in which he claimed to have nothing to do with the company. Heath later learned one of the government disclosures had been forged.

    “Timelines are essential,” Heath said.

    Other interesting tidbits at the panel:

  • Not many people know about LinkedIn’s advanced search page, which can help you find current and former employees of companies.
  • Journalists can get LinkedIn premium accounts for free, which allows you to email people on LinkedIn without being in their network. Very handy for finding sources.
  • Annual reports filed by companies with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission can be daunting. But be sure to check out sections titled “risk factors” and “legal proceedings.” These are where companies are usually at their most honest. They lay out things that could go wrong and major litigation. For companies that are very skilled at polishing their image, these sections help you find “chinks in their armor,” Heath said.
  • Jun 20, 2013: 3:31 pm

    Best #IRE13 tweets so far:

    Jun 20, 2013: 2:55 pm

    Even before the 2013 IRE Conference officially started, the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism hosted a free seminar Wednesday about finding interesting news stories in seemingly dry economic data.

    One cool thing about this panel was how they showcased actual news stories, then worked backwards and revealed how the kernel of the story idea was found in the data.

    For this article about the Eagle Ford Shale boom that ran in the San Antonio Express-News, the reporters did the following:

    • Visited the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis website;
    • Clicked on the “interactive” tab;
    • Sifted through a series of menus that took them down to the county level;
    • Checked how much per-capita personal income had increased in the Eagle Ford Shale counties. Once you get the data you can look at it in a variety of formats, such as tables or charts:
    Growth of personal income in Karnes County in the Eagle Ford Shale

    Growth of personal income in Karnes County in the Eagle Ford Shale

    This story and other articles used as examples all relied on economic data — but the stories were also filled with the voices of real people to bring those numbers to life.

    All the resources and presentations discussed in the seminar are available here.

    Jun 20, 2013: 2:50 pm

    Naturally, the 2013 IRE Conference is on Guidebook. You can check the conference schedule on your phone, save the events you want to attend and get reminders. I also like how you can view a map of the hotel, read about the speakers and check the #IRE13 feeds on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

    Yet another cool resource I learned from IRE.

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